Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Producer: Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Bekerman, Rodrigo Teixeira
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry
A Puritan family struggling to survive in 17th century New England suspects witchcraft as the source of their strife.
This trend exists in all arenas of popular entertainment, where critical consensus must meet dissatisfied dissenters head-on at the 21st-century water cooler of internet message boards and social media interactivity. But for horror cinema in particular, an annual pattern has emerged in which a festival favorite becomes swept into a cyclone of overwhelmingly positive praise only to land in the mainstream months later, surrounded by a not necessarily negligible amount of “what’s the big deal?” head-scratching from those flustering over the fuss.
In 2014, that movie was “The Babadook” (review here). “The Babadook” had a somewhat subdued January debut at Sundance that year. Traveling from city to city, country to country on the festival circuit in the following months, word-of-mouth became a mountaintop scream of “you must see this!” by the time the movie bowed before the public at large. At that point, hype was so huge that naysayers prepared to fold arms and furrow brows sight unseen, certain that nothing so universally applauded could scratch an itch of personal appeal for what one deems terrifying or entertaining.
Indeed, those naysayers said their nay, mostly shouting against a deafening wind blowing decisively in the opposite direction. For every Top Ten list on which the film appeared, for every accolade of “terrifying” or “best movie of the year,” there were scattered accusations of overhype or dismissive hand waves ranging in severity from “not scary at all” to indignant “are you kidding me?”
“It Follows” (review here) took the passed torch in 2015. David Robert Mitchell’s acclaimed thriller rode a wave of goodwill from Cannes into a typhoon of ecstatic enthusiasm through TIFF during the previous year, all but confirming “It Follows” as the next emblem of polarization in horror film fandom upon wide release. A phrase will eventually be coined for this, a film guaranteed to be inherently divisive because awareness spreads so far and so wide for so long, its preordained “must see” status demands to be challenged on the principle of buzz becoming tiring, no matter if or how much quality ultimately fulfills the fanfare.
In the meantime, “The Witch” is that movie for 2016. After its 2015 Sundance premiere, “The Witch” steamrolled mightily through every genre news website, blog, and Twitter feed to the point where few would show surprise if Silver Surfer himself heralded that the movie was coming to swallow the horror world whole. In that full year between first screening and wide release, the film amassed enough anticipation and acclaim to be billed as the most talked-about thriller in some time. The only ingredient needed is a William Friedkin equivalent quote cementing its celebrated status and fires will ignite on the torches of those eager to say otherwise.
As is of course the case in such circumstances, two dominant impressions are most likely to emerge when dividing opinions on “The Witch.” Those who adore it will say with little hyperbole that it is hypnotically engrossing, unusually unsettling, and supremely suspenseful. Those turning thumbs down and noses up will say it is slow to develop, lacking urgent action, and layered more with psychological terror than physical tension. Both perspectives are valid. Both perspectives are right.
“The Witch” is a patient movie. Patient movies require patient audiences. Yet while it may challenge the attention spans of some, others will find more welcome challenges presented by uncommon imagery daring engaged imaginations to comprehend the full fear suggested by its cerebral themes.
The setting is 1630s New England. The Church excommunicates William’s Puritan family from a thriving plantation community, forcing William, his wife Katherine, and their five children to make their home on harsh farmland near a remote forest. Crops rot. Food is scarce. When survival struggles escalate into unexpected tragedy, the family questions if they have been cursed for their sins. Shaken faith becomes uncertainty in familial bonds as whispers of a witch in the woods stir their minds with unspeakable possibilities. Wickedness has somehow befallen them, and no one from young twins Mercy and Jonas to teenage daughter Thomasin is safe from an accusation of being in league with The Devil, perhaps to blame for the seeming evil.
What is most technically impressive about the production is that it rarely comes across like a theater troupe performing a stage play in dress-up. It instead feels as though the camera fell back four centuries and landed unnoticed in a New World family’s average day in the life. Background characters breastfeed. Foreground characters scrub clothes and chop wood. An entire log village exists only to be used in one shot. With detail deepening each scene, “The Witch” achieves the near-impossible feat of transporting the viewer through time using every tool possible, not just wardrobe and props.
End credits cite extensive culling from journals, diaries, court records, and other historical texts to ensure immersive realism in scenery, behavior, and language. “The Witch” is perhaps authentic to a fault. Accents are thick and dialogue fashioned in a manner that makes cutting through its density at times distracting. Anyone with frustrated flashbacks to forcibly read “old” texts during school days will tune out at lines like, “’tis not for vanity that I am grieved of it.” Even those tolerant of the dialect may more than once ask, “what did s/he just say?”
However, hard-to-hear words are part of the greater period piece picture given form by the ensemble. Even resembling a young Katherine Heigl, actress Anya Taylor-Joy fits into the face of a 17th-century farmgirl through full embodiment of and commitment to her role. Ralph Ineson is outstanding as William. The father figure for “The Witch” is required to be stern, stoic, and staunchly religious. He also has to teeter toward unreliable for his foibles to be believable. Ineson’s deep voice and posture provide the imposition, the subtle doubt and despair behind his eyes provide the fragility.
Completing the atmosphere is a shattering score from Mark Korven. Korven digs deep into his audio arsenal for the music, pulling out instruments like a waterphone and a hurdy gurdy for unusual throwback tones. Alternatively, Korven also goes heavy on screeching strings with wailing voices for a hectic Lalo Schifrin quality perfectly complementing startling visuals.
For those with understandable difficulty cracking the language’s code, or finding themselves wishing to walk with a stride far faster than the careful pace allows, “The Witch” won’t cast the same spell entrancing its admirers. If, however, you can engage in the same slow rhythm, the movie increasingly becomes undeniably haunting and its mood skin-crawlingly frightening.
When at its best, “The Witch” is capable of shaking senses in the way that a 1970s paranoia thriller tightens tensions by upending expectations. More than that, “The Witch” serves as a small snapshot of how unfettered panic could consume a community such as Salem, where hysteria combines with uninformed ideals, forcing rational minds to entertain irrational thoughts in an effort to explain the unexplainable.
Review Score: 75